THE Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Jan Ainsworth, has spoken of a sense of betrayal over government education ministers’ recent allegations that church and other faith schools use their admissions policies to exclude difficult and disadvantaged children.
She said that initial contacts between the C of E’s Board of Education and Whitehall, over a spot check on the admissions policies of schools in Manchester, Northamptonshire, and Barnet, which revealed that some voluntary aided schools had failed fully to comply with the Government’s new admissions code, had suggested that the information was confidential.
Instead, in mid-March, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, and the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, released the survey results, claiming to have uncovered “shocking evidence” of social selection.
Mr Balls said that the evidence suggested that faith schools nationwide were asking parents for hundreds of pounds, weeding out poor or difficult children, and refusing to give places to children in local-authority care.
(Many schools have amenity funds, usually organised by parent-teacher associations. Contributions are never demanded in return for a place. The school cited by Mr Balls as seeking £800-plus a year from parents was a voluntary aided Jewish school that has been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks and threats and requires additional security. It is not a typical aided school.)
The local authorities and diocesan education boards said that most of the flaws in the admissions policies were of a technical nature, had already been corrected, and had been greatly exaggerated by ministers. Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Jewish educationists complained that their schools had been unfairly traduced.
Undaunted, on Wednesday of last week, Mr Balls held a press conference to coincide with the publication of a written statement. At this, journalists were handed a list of schools with their alleged failings.
Although the Secretary of State said that he wanted “to draw a line” under the dispute, the move resulted in a spate of news stories critical of alleged cherry-picking by church schools. The Board of Education, which had been advised that the statement was to be published, was not warned about the press briefing.
Querying Mr Balls’s motivation, Mrs Ainsworth said: “The Secretary of State must have known his decision to go public in this way would result in hostile coverage. There is a real feeling of betrayal by the minister, and some anxiety about the direction of future relationships with his department.”
For decades, particularly during the Blair years, Anglican education offficials have had a close relationship with civil servants and ministers. C of E officials strongly supported moves to make admissions fair, and had pushed for a ban on interviews. Ministers also welcomed the 2000 Dearing report, which emphasised church schools’ “mission to the poor”. Only a few months ago, Mr Balls was present at the launch of a document endorsing the Government’s partnership with faith-school providers.
Colin Hopkins, who was secretary to the Dearing review and is now director of education for Lichfield diocese, said this week that the public had been given an “outrageously false impression of our schools”.
A DCSF spokesman rejected “100 per cent” any suggestion that ministers’ love affair with faith schools had cooled: “Parents like them, and they do a good job.”
Nevertheless, many find it hard to believe that a politician of Mr Balls’s experience would not realise that he was handing Molotov cocktails to those with an anti-faith-schools agenda.
After the issue was brought to press attention in March, Dr Stephen Partridge, director of education for Peterborough diocese, suggested that Mr Balls’s target audience might be the vociferous secularist lobby. That view was reflected by the Secretary of State’s Tory shadow, Michael Gove. He said last week: “I’m convinced that, with an eye to a future Labour leadership bid, Ed Balls is playing fast and loose with these allegations.”
The leftist political commentator Conor Ryan, a former adviser to David Blunkett, said that Mr Balls risked alienating head teachers. “The matter could easily have been dealt with in a letter direct to the schools.”
Mrs Ainsworth said: “Whichever party is in power, we just want a Department we can trust.”